Speech

The role of magistrates

Speech given by Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice Damian Green, on the role of magistrates.

I’m very pleased to be here at the first of a series of events with magistrates across the country. When we began to think about the role of magistrates, as part of our wider reforms of the criminal justice system, I was adamant that we should involve magistrates themselves as early as possible in shaping our reforms. I want their thoughts and ideas to be at the heart of our policy.

I think that the speed with which the places on these events were booked up is testament to the appetite to engage with the change going on in the Criminal Justice System, and to inform how we go about it.

This government has already made big changes to Criminal Justice:

  • we have brought in Police and Crime Commissioners
  • we are transforming the way we rehabilitate offenders;
  • we’re reforming legal aid;
  • and we’ve made important improvements to support for victims.

However we still have much more to do to make sure the system continues to serve the public as well as it should. And the Strategy and Action Plan, which we launched in June, announces wide ranging changes to streamline and digitise the way we work, as well as to make the system more accountable, and more transparent, to victims and to the public.

At this time of significant change in the CJS, this is the right time for everyone to contribute to a debate on how to ensure magistrates remain central to our criminal justice system. We have an opportunity here to both strengthen and widen the role of the magistracy as part of our reforms, and also to use the expertise and unique position of magistrates to help us make the criminal justice system better.

Magistrates in England and Wales play a vital role in our judiciary. In 2011, magistrates’ courts dealt with around 19 out of every 20 defendants in criminal cases. Only 6% of defendants had a trial in the crown court.

In addition, magistrates use civil jurisdiction to help the police and local authorities combat anti-social behaviour and gang-violence; and to protect thousands of children from abuse each year.

Magistrates with their legal advisers and district judges share a breadth and volume of work which is not matched by any other judicial office-holder in England and Wales. They are volunteers, are truly the cornerstone of our justice system. Not only that, they are a model of what a good citizen should be. The 23,500 magistrates are the best of our country. They want to give their skills, expertise and time for the good of others, for nothing. We are lucky to have them, and we should be proud of them.

Our summary justice system was founded with the magistracy at the centre. Magistrates have dispensed justice in their local communities for more than 650 years, since Justices of the Peace Act introduced the novel proposition that decent members of the community, not themselves lawyers, should be vested with the power to administer justice.

That’s not to say that the magistracy hasn’t changed since then. Thankfully, it has. They are a vibrant and diverse group, which much more closely represents the communities they serve. I am particularly impressed by the improvements which have made terms of gender and ethnicity. There is still though more to do to ensure that the magistracy is truly representative of the country.

The role has also changed over time, and will continue to do so, as communities change. But the qualities of today’s magistracy – fairness, good character, understanding of people and the application of sound judgement – have been constant for decades.

Magistrates are impressive people. They perform a vital role, bringing the valuable experience and common sense of ordinary people to the justice system, and devoting large amounts of your valuable time to serving your communities. Volunteering to be a magistrate is a prime example of the kind of commitment from people to improve their own communities that this Government has sought to promote.

But we could be doing much more to make better use of this knowledge and expertise. That is why I want to ensure that we equip the magistracy with what they need to enable them to continue to make a real difference in an ever changing landscape, and ensure that they are used where they can provide maximum benefit.

In my relatively short time as Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice I have seen the considerable problems in the criminal justice system – too many delays, and too much waste. And I am sure that all magistrates must have witnessed this time and time again as they have sat in court over the years.

There would be outrage if fewer than half of hospital operations went ahead on time, or if children turning up at school found that their lessons only went ahead less than half of the time. I can only imagine how frustrated magistrates’ must feel when after volunteering their valuable time, they find that only 44% of trials proceed as planned – not even half of them.

The reforms that we’re making in the Strategy and Action Plan aim to cut out much of the waste, and reduce the delays. I hope that this will mean a more fulfilling experience for magistrates on the Bench, and this also provides an opportunity to make better use of their skills and expertise.

That is why today I am launching a piece of work that will involve them directly in developing a new statement of the role of the magistrate.

Of course a magistrates core role is, and will remain as judicial office-holders, dispensing justice for the benefit of the communities they serve. That won’t change. However, I am keen that we should maximise the value which they bring to those communities, and to emphasise the value that the Government places on their services and skills.

In order to make sure that we maximise the value of magistrates and get their role in a twenty-first century justice system right, I want to ask them three questions:

How do we ensure that Magistrates are dealing with the right cases in court?

The time magistrates spend in court should be focussed on those cases where they make a real difference to their communities. Their core skills of deciding on bail, fact-finding and sentencing should be put to best effect.

For example, three magistrates needn’t spend time rubber-stamping foregone conclusions in simple road traffic cases where the defendant doesn’t contest the matter, and doesn’t even turn up. One magistrate could deal with this much more efficiently in an office.

That’s why we announced that we will be legislating to remove those cases from traditional courtrooms, so that magistrates can focus their time in court on the more serious and contested cases which best use their skills.

For some the obvious way to keep more cases in magistrates’ courts will be to increase their custodial sentencing powers, and there is an attractive logic to this. However, there is also a risk that this could cause additional pressure on the prison population, because sentencing practices could change.

We have done some work analysing the potential impact of increased powers – as have the Magistrates Association – and we agree on the numbers involved. We perhaps disagree on how easy it could be to realise any savings and on the costs of additional prison places. So we will keep the case for increasing magistrates’ custodial sentencing powers under review and in the meantime we will retain on the statute book the provisions that enable the increased powers.

Our priority at the moment though is to tackle the unacceptably high reoffending rates – especially reoffending by those serving custodial sentences of less than 12 months. We have already announced our intention, in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which is currently before Parliament, to ensure all adult offenders are supervised for at least 12 months on release from prison. This means introducing new licence and supervision measures for offenders serving short custodial sentences.

These proposals also include a new role and powers for magistrates to deal with offenders who breach the conditions of their supervision. That means courts will have powers to deal with those who fail to comply with their supervision conditions, including being able to commit an offender to custody for up to 14 days.

We want to work with magistrates to deliver these new provisions, to get right the training and support they need to deal with these offenders and to involve them in how we rehabilitate offenders.

Around 40% of defendants that are convicted in magistrates’ courts and then committed to the crown court for custodial sentences receive no more than six months imprisonment. These are cases which magistrates could have sentenced; no, these are cases which magistrates should have sentenced; they already have the skills, capability and powers to do so. This is why I want to work with magistrates to find out why these cases are being escalated, and address that. This is particularly important for young people, where the Youth Court is set up specifically to deal with children involved in criminal proceedings, whether as witnesses, defendants or both.

We also need to get the balance right at the lower end of the spectrum as well. There is definitely a place for out-of-court disposals in ensuring justice is brought in cases which may otherwise not have come to court and as a proportionate response to some low-level offending. But we need to make sure that it is only these cases which are getting out-of-court disposals, and that all cases which should properly be brought before a court are brought to court.

There is a role for magistrates in scrutinising the police’s use of out-of-court disposals, and I am pleased that the Senior Presiding Judge supports this, and has recently issued guidance, encouraging magistrates to get involved.

These are some examples of where we can bring more of the right cases in front of magistrates, but there is more that we could do and I want to hear Magistrates suggestions and views.

This brings me onto my next question, which is:

What other ways are there for Magistrates skills and experience to be used for the benefit of their communities?

In the Offender Rehabilitation Bill we are giving magistrates more powers to help reduce reoffending. I am also very pleased to hear Magistrates are getting involved in their communities’ Neighbourhood Justice Panels, and in scrutinising out-of-court disposals; taking their valuable experience from courtrooms and using them in new and different settings.

I want to explore whether there are other appropriate roles, compatible with Magistrates core role as judicial office-holders, which would benefit from their knowledge and experience, and help to reduce crime and reoffending, and make communities safer.

Another area where Magistrates have become much more involved in recent years is in community engagement. Activities like the Magistrates in the Community initiative, the Local Crime: Community Sentence project, and the National Mock Trial Competition which John Fassenfelt of the Magistrates’ Association recently informed me about, help to strengthen the links between courts, communities and the wider justice system. They build public confidence in sentencing, and teach young people about the law and the way that the justice system in England and Wales operates.

These are great examples of the sort of local justice that we need to move towards - visible and continuous engagement with communities, working with local criminal justice agencies to understand the issues that affect those communities, and what can be done to resolve them. I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can in this area, and that we are taking every opportunity we have to raise public understanding of summary justice. I’d like to hear Magistrates views on what more we could be doing help the magistracy forge closer links with their communities.

And my last question is:

How can we ensure that Magistrates are in the driving seat of improving performance of the justice system in their communities?

I’d like to hear views on how we could harness Magistrates experience to help us improve the performance of the CJS.

The CJS needs to work in partnership to improve performance and provide a better service for victims. Not through top-down targets and measures but through a common understanding that a well performing criminal justice system is good for victims, is good for communities, and is good for the rehabilitation of offenders.

Back in February, I launched a set of seven shared outcomes for the CJS. We developed them with practitioners across the system and this has enabled us, for the first time, to state clearly a common view of what we are all working towards:

  • to reduce crime;
  • to reduce re-offending;
  • to punish offenders;
  • to protect the public;
  • to provide victims with reparation;
  • to increase public confidence, including among victims and witnesses; and
  • to be fair and just.

I would like to have a discussion about what magistrates role is locally in making these outcomes happen, for the benefit of the system, and for the benefit of their communities.

There has been some great work so far; stop delaying justice is a sentiment we can all support. Delay is bad for the victim, bad for the accused and bad for justice itself. Magistrates are central to the success of our justice system and initiatives designed to improve the way cases are managed should have the training and support of JPs at the heart of them. This I believe is true of the Stop Delaying Justice programme which began last year and enters its second phase this summer, and is why I am really impressed with the way in which the magistracy and wider judiciary have taken the initiative with this work.

I know that the magistracy is already working locally to change listing patterns to enable the police to present a greater range of cases in court, releasing the CPS to concentrate on the more serious and complex cases. This is another great example of where I can see Magistrates working effectively with the wider CJS to improve the way that the justice system works in all our areas.

Those are the three questions that I would like to put to magistrates today.

This work is the start of a new way of working with the magistracy in matters which affect summary justice. That is why we are holding these events now, at the beginning of the policy process, to ensure that it is their thoughts and ideas which form the heart of our policy building a world-class justice system.

Today we are also launching – for the first time – an online tool that will allow magistrates to put forward ideas on how they can become more involved in their communities to make them safer. Crucially the tool will allow magistrates to collaborate and develop these ideas so we can come up with a shared solution.

This is an exciting time of change for criminal justice. And I want to involve as many magistrates as I can in helping us to shape their role in the 21st Century. I know that in 650 years the role of the magistracy in England and Wales has changed as much as society has, but magistrates are still as important and highly valued as ever. Magistrates have been an essential part of the backbone of a successful society for centuries, and the changes I want to bring about will strengthen that vital role.

I would now like to show you a short film that demonstrates the wealth of experience in the judiciary and will hopefully inspire you to play a part in shaping the future role of the magistrate.

Short film

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